At Home with Judith Mandel, Quality Control Specialist
On tasting, morning music, and coffees from Rwanda and Burundi
When we visit Judith Mandel at her home in Oakland, it’s just begun to rain—ideal conditions for drinking coffee. Her dog Bodie greets us at the door, and soon, the sounds of the grinder whirring and the electric kettle hissing charge the air.
Judith is our Quality Control Specialist, which means she’s tasked with tasting, testing, and troubleshooting every single coffee we offer, every single day. You may have seen her and her Quality Control colleagues in the cupping room at our Oakland roastery, circling around the cupping table, engaged in the rigorous flavor studies and experiments that the job of a professional coffee taster demands.
On this particular morning, Judith prepares one of our recent releases—the Colombia Suaza El Sombrero—with her AeroPress.
Do you always brew with AeroPress?
No, but I have lately. I was a late bloomer to AeroPress, mostly because I feared that I would explode it everywhere when inverting it, which I have done due to my clumsy tendencies. But now I’m super fond of the concentrate-and-dilute preparation. I make a concentrate, and then dilute it to open up the flavors. It’s balanced, slightly fuller in body than other methods, but very sweet. It’s often my go-to if I’m just making coffee for myself. Any filtered method—Bonmac, Kalita Wave, Chemex—is certainly up for grabs though.
How did you first get into coffee?
All through college I worked at a fine dining restaurant in Washington, D.C., while studying criminal justice. I was going to go to law school to become a public defender, but then I was distracted—infatuated, really—by food and the food industry. I ended up at a public relations company that worked with chefs and restaurants.
I read about this cafe that was opening near me and I knew the owner through a friend. I emailed him with something to the effect of “I’m really interested in learning about coffee. I’m not sure if there’s a job here for me, but I’m willing to learn!” After a few conversations, he hired me to open and manage the shop. I was like, “You sure?” That was my first coffee job. It was wonderful. Everything was new, and everything was a learning experience.
And how did that experience lead you to Blue Bottle?
I realized I hadn’t spent much focused time as a barista, since I had been managing from the beginning. For the next several years, I worked as a barista, continuing to gain as much training and education as possible several years.
I knew I wanted to live in the Bay Area, and I knew I wanted to work for a coffee roaster. It seemed like the most progressive area doing the most interesting things in coffee and food. I moved here without a job or a home, and I started as a barista at our W. C. Morse cafe.
I didn’t know what the next steps would be, other than up and more. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was, if you see a company or a person you want to be close to, go to them. For me, that meant getting closer to coffee, understanding more—more sourcing, more tasting. I had the fortune of very good timing at Blue Bottle. The Quality Control department was hiring shortly after I started at W. C. Morse, and I have very vivid memories of feeling like, “This is the job. Here we go.”
So, you’ve been in the specialty coffee world awhile now. At this point, what kind of ongoing questions about coffee do you find yourself pursuing? What kind of unfinished fieldwork keeps you coming back to the cupping table?
There’s so much. Right now, if I had to pick one, it would have to do with language, particularly when we’re tasting coffee. How do we standardize what seems like a subjective experience? As an industry, we are certainly making strides. It is a constant dance of calibration and reevaluating systems. When one of us says “citrus,” for example, qualifying that term is crucial. It’s not important that everyone taste “x citrus fruit”, but rather a consensus in the qualities that this attribute contributes. And how do we then distill a version of this language for guests?
What is your day-to-day routine that gets you going every morning in the cupping room? Do you make coffee for yourself when you get there?
Definitely, that’s something I treasure. I won’t drink it all, but I’ll brew coffee when I arrive in the morning; anything from a new menu item, leftover sample roasts, or coffees from our other regions. I then get myself prepared for any specific coffees or troubleshooting spots to focus on for the day and week. Oftentimes, there’s an initial morning tasting, and then at 10 am sharp begins 1–2 hours of production cupping.
Benjamin (Director of Quality Control) and I also have a tradition of making tea together—our favorite is oolong—after a cupping. It’s another shared sensory experience, and it’s nice after tasting so many coffees to sit still with something new yet complementary to our previous experience. I also enjoy making tea for myself and friends at home during weekend afternoons.
What do you do every morning before you leave for work?
I do a breathing exercise every morning. It’s centering, but in a more invigorating than calming way. Coffee doesn’t energize me. It makes me really happy. But it doesn’t energize me.
Then, I walk the dog and eat breakfast. I’m a breakfast person. I also have a very strong relationship with music and sound in general. Sometimes it’s a quiet morning, or sometimes I crave music and more input. Lately, it’s been Olafur Arnalds, Lucky Brown, St. Vincent. And Lemonade, but that’s for later in the day.
Okay, one last question, which is admittedly as unfair as asking a deejay to pick a favorite song, but—if you had to pick—what’s your favorite coffee?
I’m often drawn toward coffees from Rwanda and Burundi. There tends to be a shared quality in delicate sweetness and fresh herbal flavors that I really get jazzed about. But tastes change, moods change. Nothing is completely static.